Comedy movies can still work even if their themes are weak. After all, their primary goal is typically to allow an audiences to laugh for an hour and a half, and forget about the world they live in. In serving this purpose, many comedies choose to be as big and broad as possible. As a result, these films could easily be described as dumb. In many cases, that’s an accurate description, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Many of the best comedies are inherently dumb, and that’s okay.
Still, it’s important to correct the record, because there are also plenty of comedies that have been incorrectly classified as dumb films, when that’s far from the truth. They prove that not all comedies are meaningless, and some of them are much smarter than general audiences believe them to be.
Here are 15 Dumb Comedy Movies That Are Actually Smarter Than You Realized.
Zoolander is hilarious. Ben Stiller’s directorial vision is incredibly strong here, and the film also gives him a role he is incredibly well-suited for. Stiller plays an idiotic top-of-the-line male model who encounters competition from an equally stupid up-and-coming male model played by an Owen Wilson, Stiller’s dialog is filled to the brim with wonderful jokes that play with the stupidity of his character.
Stiller is remarkably good at throwing shade at the careers of the superficial, and just because its central characters are idiotic doesn’t mean that the film itself is. In addition to being a send-up of the self-importance of the fashion industry, Zoolander is also a well-told story that uses plenty of cinematic references to make its points land even harder. While the sequel may have been ill-advised, the original Zoolander holds up as what good satire should be, ridiculing its subject matter while being careful not to take itself too seriously.
Intended to be a send-up of MacGyver and television shows like it, MacGruber was slammed by critics when it was initially released for its lack of humor, but has since developed something of a cult following. The film is based on a Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name, and follows a Green Beret and Navy SEAL who is pulled out of retirement for one last mission.
While the premise may seem stale or stupid, the genius of MacGruber is the way it’s able to nimbly satirize the action movie simply by pointing out how stupid most of the conceits of the genre are. There’s little about the film that doesn’t strictly adhere to the formula of the explosion-filled movies that dominated the ’80s and ’90s. The film’s brilliance is in its ability to constantly surprise audiences, and in the way that it’s able to use the thrills that action movies always come with to point out how stupid audiences are for playing along with these films most of the time.
13. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
While the film may seem like the epitome of a stoner comedy, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is smartly subverts much of what we’ve come to expect from this kind of story. For one thing, Harold and Kumar aren’t as broadly defined as most comedy characters. They’re drawn with precision, and it’s easy to understand and sympathize with them.
The film is also impressive in the way that it works to subvert the common stereotypes that plague its central figures, who are Korean and Indian. Although much of its humor is juvenile, Harold and Kumar never allows its characters to be defined by their ethnicity, and instead provides a more nuanced take on their lives.
For all of the crude humor and silly gags that fill the film’s run time, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is much smarter than most comedies when it comes to the handling of its central characters.
12. There’s Something About Mary
The gross out humor at the center of There’s Something About Mary may be seen by some as a disqualifier from this list. With a film like There’s Something About Mary, there’s a certain beauty in the frequency with which it makes you laugh out loud. While many believe the film to be one of the best comedies of all time, few realize that part of the brilliance of the film is the way it perfectly satirizes the entire genre of romantic comedies.
The film, which follows a woman who has multiple men vying for her affections, is ebullient and hilarious, and many of its best jokes are ones that might populate a typical romantic comedy. In There’s Something About Mary, though, each of these jokes is heightened to underline the absurdity of the character’s decisions. Of course, the film features several genuinely romantic moments, but on the whole, it’s a film about the strange hilarity that always accompanies love.
Christmas movies tend to be kind of simple, and they all revolve around themes of kindness, family, and the sense of wonder childlike wonder that comes with the season. While it’s true that Elf plays with many of these ideas, it does so in a way that feels completely new. In one of his most gleefully absurd roles, Will Ferrell plays a human named Buddy who is raised as an elf before heading to New York City to find his birth parents.
There are an incredible number of great jokes in the film which use the idea of Buddy as a foreigner who doesn’t understand how humans behave to their advantage. All of his naivete and sweetness make him immediately sympathetic, even as Elf begins to deal with ideas of cynicism and lost youth. The film really works because the rest of the its characters are grounded in a reality that is much more complicated than the one Buddy lives in. Buddy’s father isn’t a nice man, and the film reckons with how to redeem him, and with the ways that Buddy’s innocence is, in some ways, admirable.
Caddyshack is a classic. There’s little debate there. What remains is a discussion of whether the film works because it engages in a particularly stupid brand of humor, or whether this stupid humor is part of the point. While some may argue that Caddyshack is pretty simple, it seems clear that the film also has something more than just comedy on its mind.
The film, which follows the goings-on at a snooty country club, could be read as a film that’s only about the goings-on at the club. At the heart of the comedy,though, is a satire about the way the rich fritter away their money, and about the false wisdom that many of them credit themselves with. Although the film was initially criticized for its wandering form, this quality is one many have come to appreciate in the years since the film’s release.
9. This Is the End
The premise of This Is the End is relatively simple. It’s a story about a group of celebrities who work together to survive the apocalypse when it breaks out during a house party. While that sounds like a story that’s designed to maximize insanity at the expense of everything else, This is the End manages to be fairly crazy while also telling an intelligent story.
In fact, the film gleefully destroys the personas of the central characters, allowing them to deconstruct their own fame. Because each of the actors plays themselves, they’re allowed to give remarkably self-aware turns. Jonah Hill’s performance suggests the actor is a bit snooty because of his Oscar nomination, while James Franco plays up his own delightful brand of strangeness. This is the End is hilarious, sure, but it works chiefly because it understands the way fame affects he people who are forced to deal with it, and how it can impact friendships that predate it.
8. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
When it debuted in 2014, Neighbors was a surprising hit, in part because it chose to steer hard into the craziness of life in a fraternity. Its sequel certainly shares the same bones as this first installment, but is also much more thoughtful in its approach. In this film, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s small family moves in next to a brand new sorority run by a wild young woman who wants to destroy the archaic rules that govern sororities.
As the film develops, the questions it asks become more complicated. The sorority’s neighbors are genuinely supportive of their cause, but just wish they didn’t have to throw their ragers next door. The feminist ideas at the center of the film seem to suggest that broad comedies don’t have to be dominated by men. Neighbors 2 is good to its characters, and really tries to tackle the problems that women have in a society that claims to value them, but often does little to make sure they’re really given a fair shot.
7. Sausage Party
Sausage Party certainly wasn’t afraid to be crude. The animated film follows a group of food items that live a happy life on the shelf of a supermarket until one of them discovers that food’s destiny is to be eaten. In between all of the sexual innuendo and visual gags, Sausage Party also manages to be a fairly sophisticated film about the nature of organized religion, and the role it plays in many people’s lives.
When the central figure discovers that everything he thought he knew about what happens after food leaves the shelf was a lie, he tries to convince the others that there’s nothing waiting for them outside of the supermarket. Because of bow aggressively he dismantles and dismisses, they reject the truth outright. They’d rather believe the lie of a heavenly life outside the store than be forced to face a harrowing and terrifying truth, but the protagonist lacks empathy for how crushing that truth would be for them.
Sausage Party understands that treating belief systems that are different from your own with respect is a complicated part of being a mature adult. Sausage Party manages to squeeze these ideas in, and still has time for plenty of gross sex acts.
Strangely enough, Clueless is actually a modern adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, though you might not be able to guess that on your first viewing. The film follows a high school girl who plays the role of match-maker as she roams the halls, even as she remains obsessed by her own status in the school. In addition to being a fairly romantic film, Clueless also works as a satire of the teen movie genre, one that expertly punctures the personas many teenagers create for themselves in high school.
The film still has a massive following, and it also spawned an entire valley girl dialect that wasn’t widely used beforehand. While it may seem like a simple movie, Clueless is also about a young girl who’s attempting to discover how to live a truly meaningful life in an era when she’s surrounded by stuff. In addition to launching several careers, Clueless also works as a tribute to young socialites who are just as lost as everyone else, but might be a little better at hiding it.
5. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Adam McKay has since graduated to more prestigious fair with films like The Big Short, but he made his start directing movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. The film, which follows the titular Ricky Bobby, a successful Nascar driver, as he mistreats his friends and engages in a fierce rivalry, is a hilarious romp that’s also smarter than you remember it being.
While the film may seem like it’s about stupid “rednecks,” part of the point of the project was to examine the way that Nascar lovers rose to prominence during the Bush administration. While there are many jokes designed to poke fun at the culture of of these “rednecks,” there are just as many that work to acknowledge that they are living lives that many outside of their world might not understand. Talladega Nights walks a fine line, and proves to be a prescient film about a part of American culture that many were overlooking.
Borat initially seems like a deeply offensive film. It’s a story about a reporter from Kazakhstan who comes to America to film a documentary about what makes America a great nation. As the film unfolds, Borat manages to offend just about everyone he meets along the way. Borat is smart, though, in that many of the people in the film are unwitting participants, made to be part of a satirical story that they don’t fully understand.
By employing this strategy, creator Sasha Baron Cohen can simultaneously criticize Americans and honor their history. Some have criticized the film for its anti-American sentiments, but the film is actually remarkably tolerant of the diverse viewpoints that Borat encounters as he makes his way across the country. Borat understands that making fun of something is not the same as trashing it, and Baron Cohen uses his film to create a hilarious satire that also happens to be wonderfully rewatchable.
3. Mean Girls
Mean Girls works well as a sharp comedy about the catty relationships between high school students, but it works even better as a breakdown of how societal pressures make teenage girls lash out at each other. The story follows Cady, a South African student who moves to America and is quickly torn between two cliques. There are the outcasts, who initially treat Cady well, and the popular girls, aka The Plastics, who eventually invite her to join their private world.
As the film develops, screenwriter Tina Fey makes pointed jokes not just about the many ways in which the relationships between these young women are unhealthy, but also about the way that these girls are pushed to behave a certain way by their surroundings. Mean Girls argues that, while it’s likely true that young girls are too mean, this isn’t entirely their fault. It’s a societal problem, not just an adolescent one.
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is really smart. It’s easy to forget that as you watch the film, which plays out like a fairly conventional romantic comedy. The sadsack protagonist discovers that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, and decides to get away to Hawaii to forget his troubles. While there, he discovers that his ex is staying at the same hotel as he is, even as he gets romantically involved with an employee of that hotel.
All of this seems conventional, and while the movie is also remarkably funny, it doesn’t necessarily make Forgetting Sarah Marshall a smart film. What does make the movie smart, though, is the sensitivity with which it treats all of the characters. None of them are one-dimensional, and it becomes easy to see how even Sarah Marshall, the evil ex of the film’s title, is really just lost and confused.
Nobody’s a villain here, and every character makes some enormous mistake. Forgetting Sarah Marshall happens to be hilarious, but its smartest move is making laughs out of the kind of real pain that real people experience.
1. Tropic Thunder
In addition to being insanely fun, Tropic Thunder is also a great example of a comedy movie that works just fine when you only consider its plethora of jokes. Things get more impressive when you consider that the entire project does an outstanding job lampooning the personalities that often tend to dominate Hollywood. Perhaps the sharpest example of this comes in Robert Downey Jr., who plays a white man playing a black man.
Not only is a white actor doing black face blatantly offensive on its surface, but it’s also a mockery of the exaggerated and often unnecessary things “method” actors put themselves through. The entire cast is great here, and Stiller works incredibly hard to point out the ridiculous way that the characters, and actors generally, tend to be deeply self-involved.
Tropic Thunder’s central idea is that acting really is pretty silly, and that imbuing it with meaning almost always makes it sillier than it was to begin with.
Which other “dumb” comedies are actually really smart? Let us know in the comments!